Henry Belanger, a straight man, loves his gay softball team. This is his story.
Let me get this out of the way: I’m straight. While I am thin (see my skinny legs above), anyone who knows me can tell you that I am not particularly neat. I enjoy having sex with women—or, I should say, with one beautiful, sexy woman: my wife. In the not-too-distant future, she and I are likely to make babies, and when we do, it will be the old-fashioned way, through persistent copulation.
Even so, next weekend I will get together with a few dozen gay men for a few hours of hot, sweaty action. It will probably be in the nineties, but we’ll all be wearing leather.
When I get home at the end of the day, I’ll be filthy, and so exhausted I’ll be unable to perform for my wife. I might even phone a buddy or two and brag about my exploits.
I am a straight man. A straight man who loves gay softball.
Six years ago, when I was in grad school, I was looking to join a softball team. I had played in a rec league in college, and though I wasn’t very good—I played back-up first base behind my sixty-something philosophy professor—I loved getting out in the sun, chasing down fly balls at practice, and being part of a team.
I asked around and found that the men’s league in my town had a waiting list. I also found that, as a first baseman, my prospects for playing on a team in that league anytime soon were slim—first base being the position usually reserved for rotund power-hitters, the guy with bad knees, and old-timers.
So when my friend asked me if I’d come out for his softball team (no tryout required), I said yes before he had a chance to mention that it was a gay softball team, in Boston’s gay softball league. (Each team is allowed three heterosexual players. Though limiting the number of breeders caused some controversy recently in a national gay softball tournament, there have been no similar problems in Boston.)
Our first practice was on a dark, rainy afternoon in April. I remember being pleasantly surprised on a couple of counts: first, despite not playing for five years, I wasn’t the worst player out there. Going into it, I knew I wasn’t great, but to be the worst guy on a team full of fairies would have been a serious blow to my ego.
Second, it wasn’t a team-full of fairies; these were some of the most un-flamboyant, “straightest-acting” gay guys I had ever met. (I learned later not to use the expression “straight-acting” when referring to masculine gay men. “We’re not acting straight,” one told me. “We’re not acting at all.”)
I’m not going to tell you that gay softball is the same as straight softball, because it’s not. They weren’t all masculine gay jocks. We were among the worst teams in the league, and a few of our players were terrible. Some threw like girls and possessed a level of fabulous daintiness that would’ve made them stand out in any other league.
One of the guys took dressing for the game more seriously than the game itself. Our standard-issue uniform was a simple blue baseball shirt, but our catcher showed up on opening day in a full uni—complete with stirrup socks and the tightest pair of gray baseball pants you’ve ever seen.
He proceeded to go 0-for-5 in that and almost every game we played that season. But he looked fantastic doing it. (If you’re tempted to make a pitcher-catcher joke here, don’t bother—I’ve heard them all, many, many times over.)
I was playing well and having lots of fun, and I only missed one or two games that first season. This presented a problem when I had to explain to my straight friends why I couldn’t stay out all night drinking, or go to the Sunday afternoon Red Sox game.
Initially, I’d tell them I had a softball game, but depending on how open-minded I thought they were, I might or might not include any details. (Not surprisingly, my dad was the last man in my life to learn of my “secret.”)
Eventually, I had to come clean to them all, and I felt obliged to explain away their look of disbelief: “Dude, I’m not gay … I just want to play … The straight league had a waiting list …”
If that didn’t work (if they wondered if my years of chasing girls was an elaborate cover), I’d explain that I joined to meet girls. Stay with me… the gay guys I knew in college always had hot female friends, and I thought that being the teammate of these hypothetical girls’ gay friend might give me some cred as an open-minded, datable—or even just doable—guy.
Now, in my sixth season in the league, I know how incredibly silly that idea was. Most gay dudes don’t hang out with beautiful women—they hang out with other gay dudes.
Invariably, my straight friends would want to know if I got hit on that first season, or if the guys were checking out my ass all the time—didn’t that make me uncomfortable? I don’t have much of an ass to check out (I’m 6-foot-7 and two hundred pounds), and if any of the gay dudes were checking it out, I didn’t notice.
That’s not to say that I wasn’t hit on once in a while (though not by teammates, who know they’d be wasting their time). I was, and I took it as a compliment. I rarely get hit on by anyone, so if you’re telling me I’m good-looking, I’m all ears.
There are times, though, when the language on the bench can get a little too, well, gay for my taste—“Mmm, who’s he?”—but I’ll just roll my eyes and take some more practice swings. Occasionally Coach will remind the guys that they’re in mixed company: “C’mon, boys, you’re freaking Henry out.”
People want to know if gay softball is like real softball, or if guys are skipping around the bases and stepping out of the batter’s box to fix their hair.
Um, no. But there are other differences. (And I’d know because I’ve played in a couple straight softball leagues.)
First, the better teams in the gay league would absolutely wipe the floor with the straight teams I’ve played on and against.
Second, there’s a lot more grab-ass and crotch-adjustment in straight softball, and when someone gets a hit, their teammates yell “nice piece!”—a phrase that strikes me as a little gay.
Third, there’s a lot more whining and pouting in straight softball when an ump misses a call.
Unfortunately, I’ve brought some of the whining to gay softball. In my early years in the league, I developed a reputation as, well, a hyper-competitive bitch. I complained a lot more than the other guys when calls didn’t go my way, and I used to get down on myself and throw my glove into a fence, or curse a blue streak when I made a costly error.
I’ve come close to getting tossed out of a few games for arguing with umpires (most of whom are also gay), and a few times my coach has had to get in my face and tell me to shut the hell up.
My aggressiveness on the base-paths—trying to break up double-plays, for example—has probably contributed to this reputation, although I don’t do it maliciously. For me, playing hard is part of the fun.
In recent years I’ve made a conscious effort to be more like my teammates, and not take myself so seriously. It’s not that they don’t take the game, and winning, seriously. It’s just that they have a much healthier perspective on why they’re there—to have fun.
Most teams, anyway. There’s one team in our division, The Force, that’s coached by a chain-smoking lesbian who takes gay softball really seriously. She can be delightful when not playing softball, but on the field, she runs a tight, highly competitive, profanity-laced ship. “That’s fuckin’ bullshit!” her players will yell at umpires after they make a call that displeases them, even if they’re up fifteen runs at the time. They don’t like losing, and to their credit, they rarely do.
Most teams in Boston’s gay softball league aren’t out to prove their toughness, or to pretend like they’re playing major league baseball. When someone bounces into a fielder’s choice with the bases loaded, or runs into an out, they don’t give the guy dirty looks. And they don’t relegate the guy to the end of the bench.
In 2006, my contracting company began sponsoring my team, and we became the Brushbacks. In 2008, our team split into two (some of the guys wanted to move up to a higher division), and I sponsored both teams: the Brushbacks and… wait for it… the Studs.
I wanted a carpentry-related name, but they were not amused by my suggestion: the Hammerin’ Homos.
In 2009, with the recession hitting my business pretty hard, I couldn’t afford the sponsorships anymore. The new sponsor, a gay nightclub, bought us fancy new jerseys that replaced the cotton T-shirts I’d provided. I was honored when the guys decided not to change our team name.
In March of this year, the friend who brought me into the league wrote me an email—he was changing teams. Some of the other original members were moving on to new teams as well. Did I want to come with them? I didn’t even consider it.
I love my team, and look forward to gay softball so much, I can’t really imagine a scenario—aside from maybe breaking a leg—in which I wouldn’t continue playing.
Anyway, you need to be in the league ten years to be eligible for the Gay Softball Hall of Fame.
Photographs by Patrick Lentz.